Photo: Angela Neal Grove Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas & Friend http://www.angelanealworld.com
THE HARMONIES THAT ONCE SURROUNDED US
If one day you were to visit the Isles of Scilly, 45 kilometers southwest of Britain’s Cornish peninsula, you might find yourself walking an ancient dirt road that leads you straight into the wind-tossed waters of the North Atlantic. “Strange,” you think as you turn to retrace your steps. But what if instead you were to hire boat, and continue to follow the trajectory of this poor drowned road? Soon you would arrive at the shore of another island; and there you would see your soggy little road re-emerging from the sea as if this were a perfectly natural thing for a road to do.
And then what if on a hunch you were to charter a plane to give you a bird’s-eye view of the entire archipelago? From such a higher, wider vantage it’s easy to identify the road you just walked, and to watch it disappear and then reappear. Only now you can see that it does this more than once, while at the same time intersecting other roads that do exactly the same. The result is a complex spider-web of thoroughfares linking all 55 separate islets into one unified whole. And then suddenly you get it! Today’s Scillies are really just leftovers, hilltops of what was once a single contiguous land mass that at some point in its long history of human habitation (c. 450 CE, to be exact) had its oneness fractured by the rising waters of a once-friendly sea.
A few days later you’re back in London, sitting in a departure lounge at Heathrow Airport. As you watch passengers and crew members come and go, you cannot help but notice how totally absorbed most are in their private little worlds of earbud and cell phone. Turning your attention to a TV monitor overhead, you watch as one of the most grandiose political egos to ever commandeer the world stage preaches his gospel of unapologetic self-interest to a new America of ‘me’ that no longer values, or even believes in, the traditional America of ‘we’. On his right stands his equally mean-spirited and racist policy advisor. On his left, the consultant who famously once proclaimed that hate is a better motivator than love.
Dismayed by these displays of disconnection, and with that numinous image of the Scilly’s deep underlying connectedness still haunting your imagination, you quietly muse to yourself…
“Has it always been like this? Perhaps every chapter of the human story to date has had its own version of Neo-Nazism, predatory capitalism, and diehard Tea Party Republicanism. Is it simply our nature to be so divisively self-centered? Or is there something else at work these days; some influence in addition to the usual suspects – greed, urbanization, over-population, etc. – that we don’t acknowledge or understand? Either way, the writer Kurt Vonnegut sure was right on the money when he suggested that the most dangerous flag in the world today is a skull and crossbones emblazoned with the words: “Hell with you Jack, I got mine!”
And yet what about all those old, old stories that purport to come from a time when humans too were as fundamentally networked as the pre-diluvian Scillies? Not in today’s superficial, device-mediated manner. But in a way that was the core attribute of their consciousness, and that to the fragmented memory of a time like ours is only too easily dismissed as nothing more than fanciful nostalgia for something that never really existed in the first place.
Then what if somewhere along the way, due to some ‘environmental’ change reminiscent of a flood, this deeply-rooted embrace of commonality gradually began to disappear in a great slow-motion historical arc. So gradually in fact (on cat’s paws as it were) that hardly anyone noticed what was happening or why. The metamorphosis would take some 2500 years; but when it was finally complete, the locus of the human experiment in consciousness had shifted dramatically from ‘we’ to ‘me’. Or said in a way more consistent with my Scilly metaphor: consciousness in its human expression had, for reasons not understood until now, reinvented itself in the form of today’s global archipelago of 7.7 billion individual ‘isles’.
* * *
Now I doubt you’ll find the above version of the human story in any contemporary history text – at least not in any written since the traditional historical narrative became today’s objective chronicle of events, ideas, and personalities marshaled in support of some generalized theory. You’d have to go back at least to the Italian scholar Giambattista Vico and The New Science Of History (1725) to find anything even remotely comparable. Or better still: to the much older global treasury of indigenous ‘histories’ – a good example of which has been made accessible to us through the work of the anthropologist Keith Basso…
“Western Apache history as practiced by Apaches advances no theories, tests no hypotheses, and offers no general models. What it does instead, and likely has done for centuries, is fashion possible worlds, give them expressive shape, and present them for contemplation as images of the past that can deepen and enlarge awareness of the present. (Wisdom Sits In Places, 1996, p. 31)
What Basso the scientist is talking about here isn’t science. It’s myth. And unless you the reader are an aficionado of Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell, you’re more likely to be using the word ‘myth’ to mean a belief or explanation that’s proven fallacious or untrue. Because in the intellectual life of our emerging global techno-culture, science and philosophy are assumed to be the final arbitrators of truth – even as philosophy’s authority in this matter is steadily declining in the face of attacks from the likes of the late Stephen Hawking. And because myth is both pre-philosophical and pre-scientific, it ends up being cast in the role of their perennial antagonist.
However one of science’s own – Dr. Jacob Lieberman – disputes this assumption. “Science,” Lieberman argues, “is a wonderful field of exploration, but it is not truth. It’s just the theory of the day. It’s continually changing, because it is continually changing theories.” And if we listen to the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, philosophy is no different. “Every philosopher sets out to explain the world and ends up as a chapter in a history book.” That both ways of organizing human experience seem to be ‘in the same boat’ here makes perfect sense when you understand that their relationship to each other is one of parent/child.
Ironically it’s an old myth that may have the last word in this matter. Each of these disciplines seems to possess its own unique shard of the broken mirror of truth. Or better still: each mirrors to us just one viewpoint on a larger truth. And as you’re about to see, there’s a very good reason why this is so.
For our purposes here, we’ll define a ‘myth’ as any old, old story that has captured the imagination of a ‘we’ – be that we a clan, a tribe, a people, a nation, or humanity as a whole – because it affirms some essential mystery, or reaffirms an essential truth, that’s central to their common purpose or journey. Just like a dream comes to a ‘me’, a myth comes to a ‘we’ from the poetic, irrational, night side of its life, rather than the logical, rational, day side. It’s a gift of Dionysus, not of Apollo. And to further complicate the issue, according to Vico, the original meaning of the word ‘myth’ was actually ‘the true story’ – not ‘the false’.
So which is it? How could a myth possibly incorporate more truth than science?
WANDERING IN THE TRACKLESS LAND
It was the most powerful dream I’d ever had. I lay there in its aftermath, thinking: “What the hell was that?” as its haunting sequence of images cycled through my imagination and recycled through my memory. The dream itself was beautiful yet horrible, exhilarating yet terrifying, profoundly reorienting yet disorienting as well – all at the same time. And in the shadowy coolness of pre-dawn, lest I forget, I meticulously transcribed every detail.
I had gone to bed the night before in an unusually agitated state. Raised in a staunch Irish-Catholic family, I had sent a shockwave through my home life when I announced that I was abandoning a faith bereft of personal meaning, hopelessly mired in a toxic patriarchy, and already by my own experience in an earlier stage of today’s pedophile crisis. Like all organized religion, Catholicism brings with it some pretty heavy conditioning; and leaving can have a lot in common with heroin withdrawal. What I had always taken for solid ground had suddenly disappeared from beneath my feet; and I was left adrift in a sea of uncertainty and confusion. A heated conversation on the day of my dream had stirred it all up yet one more time. This had been going on for well over a year now, and I just could not find a way beyond it.
A second big quake rumbled through my life not too long thereafter when midway through my sophomore year in college I received the shocking news that I had failed academically and was being dis-enrolled. In early 1960’s American culture, this was not only a huge disgrace and a further embarrassment for my beleaguered family, it also left me instantly vulnerable to the military draft. The Vietnam war was escalating. The resistance that would eventually shut it down was still in its infancy; the American people were growing bitterly divided – much like today; and I found myself on what at the time was generally held to be the wrong side of an increasingly rancorous ‘love it or leave it’ shouting match.
So within the space of a couple of years, the two things that were the foundation stones of my self-identity were demolished. I no longer had any idea whatsoever who I was, where I belonged, or what I was going to do.
* * *
In my dream I was in real danger and I knew it. Hesitatingly picking my way through a jostling unfriendly crowd, I noticed to my chagrin that I was being followed by a menacing group of rough young men. I desperately looked for a way to escape, but the crowd was no help. Realizing I was trapped, my anxiety level went to code red. As if that weren’t enough, I felt something moving on the back of my hand; and as I looked down, a huge white spider gave me a vicious stinging bite. Now I was in total panic, dizzy, and quickly falling into a swoon. Suddenly my mother was at my side, distraught and pleading with me not to die. The last thing I remember was seeing the young men closing in fast, knife blades glinting in their hands. Then mercifully I lost consciousness.
When I returned to my senses, I was alive but alone, squatting on my haunches, naked on a large horizontal branch of a massive and regal tree, in the midst of a beautiful forest. My hair was much longer. And for some unexplained reason, I was wearing wire-rimmed spectacles despite my history of 20/20 vision. On the forest floor beneath me, a lively college class was in session. To my delight I recognized my fellow classmates and our favorite theology professor. I watched in a state of curious but complete detachment; and they in turn were totally oblivious to my presence and condition. I clearly was no longer part of that world.
Turning my gaze upwards, I was immediately awestruck by the quiet majesty of this ancient tree and the brilliance of the sun floating in the most intensely deep blue sky I’d ever seen. And as I slowly took in all this remarkable beauty, I first found myself flooded with intense feelings of love, and then comforted with a healing sense of rightness, peace, and wellbeing.
* * *
Now that was what I like to call a ‘Big Dream’. Most dreams are generally analogous to housecleaning: composed of surreal plot twists seemingly generated by daily backlogs of information being processed and expunged. But the occasional Big Dream is different. It’s housebuilding. I certainly didn’t understand it at the time, but what my dream was really doing was laying out for me in remarkable detail the future course of my life. It became a guiding image for me in those dark difficult years. I didn’t know why, but I found solace in simply calling up its memory.
Now at 73, I can see clearly (the spectacles) exactly how the unfolding story of my life first forced me, then eventually helped me, to literally flesh out the image of that primitive tree-dweller. It seems to me now that who I was to become has somehow directed everything required for that to happen. Over time that dream has served as both a roadmap and a compass, given me a clear sense of direction, and organized my life choices in a meaningful pattern. In Sufism they say: “The cause of the tree is the fruit, and not the root.”
Now here’s the real point for my story. I sought help from many directions in those difficult uncertain years. I went to counseling, did some psychotherapy, and even went through a psychiatric evaluation. Eventually I was able to return to school where I majored in philosophy to see if I could find some help there. Each gave me a piece of the broken mirror – i.e., was helpful to some degree. But the only thing that helped me see how my time of troubles fit in the larger mosaic of my life, the only thing that helped me see the Big Picture, was my dream.
In his autobiography Memories, Dreams & Reflections, Carl Jung writes: “As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being.” The light he’s referring to, of course, is the light of consciousness; and my dream that night so long ago lit up my consciousness and illumined the future course of my life as never before or since. I
It has also put me on a path to comprehending a rather simple but important distinction that our emerging global techno-culture, to its own peril, is rapidly conflating and forgetting. Valuable as it is, objective philosophical and scientific knowledge about consciousness is one thing. But our subjective experience of consciousness is something else entirely.
And I have spent the bulk of my 73 years on this planet championing the value of subjective experience – which is really just another term for spirituality. But while our objective understanding of the world (including consciousness) increases exponentially by the day, our subjective ability to navigate this still-mysterious phenomenon lags dangerously behind. As a consequence of this widening gap and the resulting imbalances, we’re rapidly destroying ourselves, our fellow creatures, and Mother Earth herself.
A myth is a collective dream, a common dream. As anyone who has made a serious study of their own can verify, the personal dreams that visit us on the night side of consciousness can often on our personal stories that often proves to be more complete and informative than our day selves, by themselves, can seemingly achieve. Since collective, or ‘common’, dreams too come from the irrational night side of life, shouldn’t they be able to help us achieve a more complete appreciation of the common human story?
Science, on the other hand, is largely a creation of the rational day side of consciousness. Wisdom here isn’t a matter of either/or, but of both/and, since each side by itself possesses just half the story. The scientific story elucidates how things actually work; the mythic story contextualizes. Marrying the two produces an understanding that throws light on, while at the same time honoring and preserving, the Great Mystery. The result, in Terrence McKenna’s haunting turn of phrase, is: ‘a true hallucination’.
Objective ‘knowledge about’ consciousness is one thing; but subjective ‘experience of’ consciousness is something else entirely. So when it comes to better understanding this still mysterious phenomenon, what if we were to experiment with situating the scientific story within the context of a much larger mythic story? A myth, for instance, like the one I’m suggesting. Wouldn’t the implications be truly radical?
For starters: we’d have to embrace the possibility that the form of human consciousness – its functional configuration or ‘shape’ – isn’t as fixed and constant as our philosophers and scientists today seem to think it is. That the configuration you and I embody is actually more akin to a deeply-engrained habit than a hard-wired fact. That our form of consciousness is really just as plastic as the neurology which underpins it. And that this form has actually changed its configuration over time.
Secondly: in his 1958 book Patterns Of Discovery, the philosopher of science Norwood R. Hanson writes: “Rarely can a person discover what does not yet exist for them as a conceptual possibility.” The short-sighted truth is that the West has never seriously entertained a concept of consciousness that allows for temporal variation in form; and because of that, no one has been looking for it. Instead we unquestioningly assume that the form we embody today is the very nature of consciousness itself. Yet in a world where everything changes and NOTHING lasts, why should the architecture of consciousness be the lone exception?
And finally: if an earlier humanity did actually experience a great mutation of consciousness, shouldn’t we ask the question: might it all happen again? Could it already be happening? And if it is, wouldn’t it help us navigate such a profound metamorphosis more successfully if we knew exactly what created and drove the last one?
What I’m proposing is a different vision of our future based on a different understanding of our past. A future that rejects the hyper-individualistic, day-sidedly rational, predominantly technocratic, and increasingly dystopian one that’s now haunting our imaginations, hijacking our economics, and poisoning our politics. A future not constrained by the conventional understanding of history which, if you’ haven’t noticed, is largely a glorification of war. A future guided instead by a vision that sees the conventional chronicle as contained within in a larger and more inclusive history of human consciousness.
And what if such a radical re-framing of the human story isn’t simply an interesting possibility? What if it’s an evolutionary mandate instead? Because what if our current form of consciousness has an inherent structural flaw? A defect of Shakespearian proportion that left un-remedied will persist in bringing the whole game crashing down around us like the empires of summer in the first frosts of autumn.
What then, my friend? An armageddon of imploding self-interests like we’re already beginning to see: ‘The Walking Dead’, with or without the zombies? Or the next great metamorphosis?”